Sibs Sibanda is the Executive Director of the South Africa-based Faith and Work Alliance. He also runs an IT company in Harare, where he lives with his wife and two children. Over the last 20 years, he planted and led a number of churches in Harare and Johannesburg, while also working as a strategy consultant and business developer for various organisations. He holds a degree in Land Surveying from the University of Zimbabwe, and completed his studies in Biblical Greek at the South African Theological Seminary.
Much is said about corruption and the failure of accountability in African politics – which is appropriate, but also convenient. What I mean is that as long as the spotlight is on the political arena, regular citizens like you and I, who are involved in business and not politics, can carry on with our affairs with far less scrutiny and introspection. And yet, who can forget the titanic scandals that have rocked the private sector in the last few years? Names like VBS Mutual Bank and Steinhoff have become synonymous with corruption and have also dispelled any notions of the problem as being limited either to the public sector, or to race.
It may interest you to know that Transparency International’s 10th edition of the “Global Corruption Barometer – Africa” (which to date is the largest, most detailed survey of citizen’s views on corruption and their direct experiences of bribery in Africa) made some rather surprising revelations concerning public perceptions of corruption. In the survey, which incorporates the views of more than 47,000 citizens from 35 countries across Africa, 39% thought that most or all government officials are corrupt, and 36% thought the same of business executives! I shudder to think what result would emerge if the same question were asked specifically of business executives who claim to be Christian.
Law versus mindset
In South Africa, the problem is not one of regulation, because in addition to statutory legislation (the Companies Act) there is the widely accepted corporate governance approach – the King Code of Governance, which sets out the fundamentals of ethical and effective leadership, with an emphasis on fairness, transparency, and accountability. So, the problem is not in the external code – rather, it lies deep within each one of us. In an online Biznews article highlighting key learnings from the Steinhoff saga, Brett Hamilton et al. make the point that “strong governance is not just about financial and regulatory compliance – it is a mind-set.” We will now explore this idea further.
A significant transition in Israel’s history is marked in 1 Samuel 8. Up to that point, Israel was led by God through his chosen servants – the judges. This all changed when they came to Samuel and demanded that God give them a king – so that they could be “like all the other nations”. What is interesting in the context of this article is that when Samuel warned them about how a king would abuse them (enslave them, and take their sons and daughters, their fields and crops), they still insisted on having one! Using a modern-day analogy, Samuel advertised a car with a knocking noise in the engine, warning lights flashing on the dashboard, and black smoke pouring out of the exhaust – and the people still ran to the bank for a car loan!
Why would they do that? Why would they embrace a style of leadership that was evidently going to be a law unto itself? The answer is idolatry. In his book, Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller describes an idol as:
[A]nything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give… An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.
For the Israelites, that ‘something’ was being like the other nations. They wanted that more than they wanted God. In fact, they wanted it so badly that they were willing to put up with all the pain a king would bring. Now, before returning to the African context, it is worth noting that by Keller’s definition, idolatry can operate on multiple levels (personal, ethnic, national), which explains much of what we see on the global political stage. Without painting myself either ‘red’ or ‘blue,’ I invite you to consider the almost cult-like status that Donald Trump enjoys amongst a section of Republican voters in the United States. It is as though they are completely blind to his faults (or at least are prepared to overlook them) as long as he delivers policy that is in line with their worldview and way of life. Idolatry by definition is a trade-off – “I’ll put up with just about anything, as long as I get that which my heart truly desires.”
A matter of perspective
As you may have picked up by now, I am approaching the subject of accountability a little differently – not from the perspective of those from whom accountability is expected, which leaves most of us as passive victims, but from the perspective of those from whom accountability should be demanded.
Using 1 Samuel 8 as a point of reference, I am not so interested in why Saul (who had the law right in front of him), failed to lead well. I’m more interested in why the Israelites did not demand more from him – why they settled for bad leadership. In the case of modern-day South Africa, my interest in this article is not why political and business leaders do not consistently apply constitutional and legislative standards of transparency and accountability – I am rather asking why ‘we the people’, do not appear to demand more from them.
The subject of accountability and corruption in Africa is vast, so I will limit my scope to teasing out the question, “What idols are so important to us as Africans that we will put up with just about anything from our leaders just to have them?” It is worth noting that the things we refer to as idols, are not always intrinsically bad. In fact, most of them are good or ‘neutral’ things – like family or money. Idolatry is when we turn ‘good’ things into ‘ultimate’ things, because for the Christian, God is the only ‘ultimate’ thing.
Coming back to the question of what we as Africans could possibly have idolized, I will stick my neck out and say that ‘culture’ features prominently. I expect that many of my readers will understand how loaded this word is in the South African context – how sensitive people of different ethnicities get about anything they perceive to be undermining their culture. As such, you will appreciate how carefully I must tread as we explore the intersection of traditional African culture with modern interpretations of the principles of transparency and accountability.
It’s my culture
Like most ancient civilizations around the world, African tribes and nations were for many centuries ruled by kings and/or chiefs. A chief or traditional leader is defined as an individual who, by virtue of his or her ancestry has traditional authority over the people who live in a particular area. In an article entitled, “Chieftaincy and Kingship in South Africa”, published by South African History Online, the author highlights the challenges of a chieftain model (and mentality) in a modern democracy:
In a democratic society, the observance of chieftaincy faces many problems. One of the key issues relates to chieftaincy operating on principles that are antithetical to democratic ideas and values. For example, a chief is not elected into office by popular vote, but through lineage, and is thus in office for life. This system is patriarchal, has largely excluded women from the office, and supports customary laws that are oppressive to women. In such a system there is a lack of representation and downward accountability.
This patriarchal system is also evident in family life, where traditionally, husbands and fathers ruled over their families with absolute authority, where women’s views have been limited to ‘women’s affairs’, and where children are expected to show respect by obeying their parents (and people older than them in general) without question. [I feel I must add two qualifications here. First, although authoritarian rule is not the biblical vision of a man’s leadership of his household, there is much to be said for the value embedded in traditional African family life for relationships and respect for elders. And secondly, extreme authoritarianism in African households has been significantly tempered, even in my own lifetime.]
What happens then, when this ‘chieftain and patriarchal mindset’ brushes up against biblical standards of accountability (many of which are encoded in legislation and codes of conduct)? What happens when the CEO routinely pays bribes to secure business, or when politicians allocate state tenders to conflicted entities? How do ‘we the people’ respond? I am speaking primarily about the occasions where as individuals, we have front row seats to such misdemeanours and outright crimes. Do we speak up and demand accountability? Do we challenge those who are in authority over us? Those who sign our pay cheques? Those who are older than us? Those whose family name and lineage demands our unquestioning allegiance? Or do we choose silence, bowing instead to the idolatry of culture – to the fear of losing that which we believe makes us who we are?
It is easy enough to decry those in leadership who fail to be accountable, but are we not partly responsible for creating an environment which enables them to flourish? Would Saul have been king had Israel not said, “give us a king”? Do we place so high a value on our patriarchal traditions that we would trade good governance for leaders who will abuse their power, at whatever cost? As Christian citizens and businesspeople, the answer must be an emphatic, “No!” Not because we do not value our ‘African-ness’, but because we understand that our identity in Christ leads us to affirm some of our traditions, correct others, and completely discard those which are fundamentally unbiblical – which by the way, applies to every human culture on earth.
For some however, the idol in question is not culture. Many put up with corruption and lack of accountability because they are protecting something else of great value – their jobs and livelihoods, their acceptance in certain social groups, and in extreme cases, even their very lives. It would seem then, that only someone who has found in Christ a treasure greater than all these can speak truth to power and demand accountability, without fear of losing the thing they value most (whether it be one’s culture, job, acceptance, or life). For it is Christ himself who says: “Whoever wishes to save his life [in this world] will [eventually] lose it [through death], but whoever loses his life [in this world] for My sake, he is the one who will save it [from the consequences of sin and separation from God]” (Luke 9:24 AMP).
A shining example
It is not for me or anyone else to say what taking responsibility looks like for you, but perhaps the example set by others may help to inspire us all.
When former Trillian Financial Advisory CEO Mosilo Mothepu found herself at the heart of the then Public Prosecutor’s State Capture Enquiry, she had a big decision to make. Would she risk all for the sake of transparency and accountability, or protect herself by covering for those from whom accountability was being demanded? She chose the former and paid a heavy price for doing so. In an interview with the Daily Maverick, she detailed how legal battles, and social and professional isolation caused her such emotional trauma that she spent “two years in bed crying”. Why would anyone choose such a painful path, when being silent is so much easier and safer?
In what she describes as her ‘Damascus moment’, she recalls saying to God, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for a good woman to do absolutely nothing,” and then to herself, “Am I a good woman? I have to be.’” In that moment she decided that God, and her identity as his child, mattered more to her than money, her career, and even her very life. After two years of being “treated like a leper”, Mosilo was eventually hired by MTN. She spent two years with them before making the decision to leave the corporate world for a bigger purpose – “teaching people to speak truth to power.”
The tragedy for our continent is not so much that people in power lack accountability, it is that the millions who profess to be Christians are not prepared to ‘lose their lives’ by demanding it. And by the way, notice how easy it is to speak about ‘those in power’, when you do not think that you are one of them.
It is often said that the law is only as good as one’s ability to enforce it, which though true, is somewhat disempowering. It leaves us with only one solution to the problem of accountability in politics and business – “someone else needs to do better to enforce it”. My intention in writing this article, is to throw the challenge back at you and me.
For some of us, demanding accountability will require that we overcome entrenched cultural norms and instincts, while for others there will be something else of great value that we need to be prepared to lose if called upon to do so – something that perhaps has become so important that it has clouded our view of the treasure we have in Christ, which nothing can ever take away. Either way, be encouraged to know that you are not powerless – you can make a difference in Africa, here and now.
Cameron, Jackie. (2018). “Six deadly mistakes Steinhoff bosses made.” https://www.biznews.com/sa-investing/2018/07/04/six-mistakes-steinhoff-bosses-made [Online Article] Accessed 29 May 2021.
Keller, Timothy (2011). Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex and Power. Riverhead, New York: Penguin Random House.
Shoba, Sandisiwe (2021). “Treated like a leper: Mosilo Mothepu relates the cost of being a whistle-blower.” https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-04-22-treated-like-a-leper-mosilo-mothepu-relates-the-cost-of-being-a-whistle-blower/ [Online Article] Accessed 1 June 2021.
South African History Online (n.d.). “Chieftaincy and kingship in South Africa.” https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/chieftaincy-and-kingship-south-africa. [Online Article] Accessed 29 May 2021.
Transparency International. (2021) “Citizens speak out about corruption in Africa.” https://www.transparency.org/en/news/citizens-speak-out-about-corruption-in-africa# [Online Article] Accessed 27 May 2021.
 Counterfeit Gods, pages xix–xx